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4 Ways People Cross the Line From Sharing to "Trauma Dumping"

What to consider before disclosing past trauma.

Key points

  • There is a difference between trauma dumping and intimacy building.
  • Healthy disclosure involves the consent and willingness of both parties to participate.
  • Prior to disclosing personal or sensitive information, consider safety, expectations, the other person's receptivity, and the timing.

As a trauma therapist, I have appreciated the paradigm shift in how we have come to view, understand, and relate to trauma. Therapists are being provided with more training and education to better support individuals in processing and working through trauma, and lay people are also, of their own volition, seeking out information about the nature of trauma and its impact on the human psyche and relationships.

There are also more resources that are being made available and accessible on this topic, including books, apps, and media platforms, as well as more conversations that are being had openly. All these things are necessary to reduce stigma and address bigger systemic issues that perpetuate the cycle of trauma.

However, it has also become apparent that we are now more prone to overshare or divulge very sensitive and personal information in the name of being “vulnerable” with people who may not have earned the right to receive this information or are not in a place where they even can or want to hold space. And while vulnerability is important in building intimacy and meaningful connection, it is also a practice that should be done with care and consideration for the well-being of oneself and others. For example, there is a big difference between disclosing a traumatic event or experience on a first date versus with a close friend.

In my practice, we discuss this topic of vulnerability and self-disclosure often. When is it appropriate and inappropriate to share personal information? When is it “trauma dumping,” and when is it building intimacy?

These are valid questions. Trauma dumping is the non-consensual sharing (typically oversharing) of one’s experiences (thoughts, feelings, memories), resulting in the other person on the receiving end feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped to manage and respond to the information received. Trauma dumping is one-sided and done impulsively. Intimacy building, on the other hand, is an ongoing, mutual exchange of personal information over an extended period of time, in which both parties consent and express a willingness to learn more about the other person.

So, how do you determine if and when it is appropriate to disclose past trauma or sensitive information to someone else? Here are four things to consider:

1. Safety

Prioritize your emotional safety and well-being. Is this other person a safe person? Have you just met them, or have you known them for a while? Do you feel like this other person respects you and has earned your trust? Have there been other instances in which they have shown that they can be trusted with sensitive information? Do they generally respond to others with kindness and compassion?

While there is no magic formula to determine the “safety” of another person or relationship, pay close attention to your body and how you feel. If something feels off or you are unsure about your emotional safety, give yourself some time to continue to assess before disclosing.

2. Expectations

Consider what you expect or want to receive from sharing and if this other person will be able to meet your expectations. Are you seeking validation, or are you seeking to build intimacy? Can this person provide the space and the response that you need? Do you expect them to share personal information in return? How will you feel if their response does not meet your expectations?

For example, if you have high expectations for how the other person will respond and they in some way fall short, is this something you will be able to tolerate? There is always the possibility that the other person may not know how to respond (or at least effectively respond) to the information shared—especially when the topic is sensitive in nature.

3. Receptivity

Is this other person a consenting party, and are they willing to hold space and be on the receiving end of this disclosure? Does their body language demonstrate openness? (I.e., Are they making eye contact? Do they look engaged?)

Realistically, not everyone may be open to this type of exchange. Whether it’s a new friend, boss, or someone you have just met on a dating app—some people may not feel comfortable being on the receiving end of hearing about an experience that is so personal. In all relationships, it’s important to consider the other person’s boundaries and level of willingness. This is also important for you and your emotional well-being, as you deserve to feel seen and heard.

4. Timing

Consider the circumstances. Is sharing this information relevant and appropriate given the current circumstances? Do you need more privacy or a physical space that offers fewer distractions? Are you disclosing at a time that allows for a longer conversation or debriefing?

For example, having a more serious and intimate conversation with a partner could become problematic if it was initiated right before they have an important job interview. It’s helpful to consider how much time you have, any extenuating circumstances, and the other person’s emotional availability.

While there is never a “perfect” time to have difficult conversations such as these, there are things you can do to enhance your sense of safety and consider the needs of both you and the other person.

LinkedIn/Facebook image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

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